Long live the Pharaoh!
Over the past few weeks, Egypt has held two rounds of parliamentary elections, although, upon closer examination, the process could hardly be referred to as elections. The composition of the new parliament was already predetermined through massive interference during the nomination process and the election campaign.
Opposition party candidates were hindered while trying to participate in the campaign or even denied permission to run, free media was muzzled, and, in particular, supporters of the opposition Islamist Muslim Brotherhood were arbitrarily detained.
At all costs, election results similar to those of the last parliamentary elections five years ago were to be prevented. In the first round of those elections, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood garnered more votes than President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), and, despite numerous irregularities, won 88 seats in the second and third rounds of elections to become the strongest opposition block in parliament.
As a result, so-called "democratic reforms" have been instituted since 2005, in which the constitution has been altered and the scope of action for critical media and civil society players has been severely limited. The Egyptian regime under the leadership of the ailing 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak had clearly shown that it is not in the least interested in a political opening of the country's authoritarian system.
Yes to reforms, no to democracy!
The course of events during these elections is nothing new for the land of the Nile. As in previous elections, Hosni Mubarak and his NDP have always done their utmost to see that even the minimum standards of democracy don't apply on polling day.
Nonetheless, the results of this parliamentary election and the enormity of the governing party's victory with over 95 percent of the seats in the new parliament come as a surprise. The poor showing by the opposition in the poll on 28 November and the subsequent election boycott by most of the opposition candidates who qualified for the run-off round on 5 December recalls parliamentary elections under the single-party rule of Nasser's Arab Socialist Union in the 1950's and '60s.
Such obvious election manipulation should not be seen as reflecting the strength of the regime or as a sign of efficient government action. On the contrary, it is an expression of weakness, as stable authoritarian regimes can nowadays put up with a numerically strong opposition. This form of "controlled pluralism" is a means to an end, namely for the government to legitimize itself domestically and abroad. The present election results, however, will make it rather difficult for the Egyptian regime to portray the poll with a democratic sheen.
Yet, this appears to be of secondary concern to the political leadership under Hosni Mubarak in 2010. The main concern is with respect to the presidential election next year, which would only be disrupted by oppositional voices in parliament.
It makes no difference whether the old and weak Hosni Mubarak runs for his sixth term or makes room for his son Gamal as his successor to the presidential office. The important thing is to have the complete support of parliament for an orderly execution of next year's election. Lively debates with the opposition are certainly not desired.
In addition, parliament serves as a prime network for patronage, where well-serving party functionaries can be rewarded for their loyalty. As such, the NDP leadership evidently requires almost all parliamentary seats to quell any conflicts – and there are many – within the party. By specifically allocating seats, the leadership hopes to establish a minimum of party unity. Nothing is being left to chance for next year's presidential election. But what does this all mean for Europe?
Stability and security
During the 1990s, normative values such as democracy and human rights played a central role in European foreign policy formulations. An opening of the ossified authoritarian structures in the Middle East seemed to conform with changes on the global political scene (e.g. the end of the Cold War) as part of the worldwide wave of democratization. Yet, political developments in the region, including the ability of authoritarian regimes to adapt to the new situation, contradicted these universal basic assumptions.
Correspondingly, European policy increasingly oriented itself towards the politically achievable and less towards the politically desirable. Today, therefore, stability and security are clearly the top priorities for the southern Mediterranean region. In particular, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the brief intermezzo of a liberalization and democratization agenda pushed by the Bush administration, stability and security are once again the dominant foreign policy interests with respect to Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt.
Its role as a reliable mediator in the Middle East conflict and Egypt's control of the Suez Canal, vital for international shipping, seem assured by the evident stability of the authoritarian Mubarak regime. Yet, this image of a stabile regime, which is currently occupied with the issue of a successor to Mubarak, has been tarnished. Europe should take critical notice of this fact and, as a direct result, undertake an examination of its policies towards Egypt.
Rhetoric on democratization doesn't help
What is at issue here is not a comprehensive policy of democratization, but rather a strengthening of channels of influence directed towards opposition figures in order to achieve greater transparency and to bolster mechanisms and institutions that foster the rule of law.
In the past, similar political overtures were rejected by the Egyptians as interference in the country's sovereignty. There is always the accompanying indirect threat that the current regime is the sole reliable partner and guarantor of stability in an unstable region.
Nonetheless, Europe and the USA should increasingly demand more transparency and a greater political inclusion for opposition groups. These demands would have the necessary political weight if the considerable annual transfer payments to the Egyptian regime were made conditional on their implementation. The parliamentary elections have once again shown that a constant avoidance of conflict with the Egyptian regime does nothing to open up the country's authoritarian system and nor can it secure stability on the Nile over the long term.
© Qantara.de 2010
Dr. Thomas Demmelhuber is currently working at the Institute of Political Science, Erlangen-Nürnberg University.
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de